A senior American officer involved in training Iraq's new security forces is warning against putting too much responsibility on those forces too quickly, as pressure grows in the United States for the start of a withdrawal of U.S. troops. The officer spoke from Baghdad to reporters at the Pentagon Monday and VOA's Al Pessin reports.
As coalition forces move to clear insurgent strongholds like Diyala Province, north of Baghdad, as part of the new 10-day old offensive, the plan is for Iraqi forces to take over and maintain security in those areas. But as he nears the end of a year-long assignment running a training program for the Iraqi Army and police, Brigadier General Dana Pittard issued this warning on Monday.
"It will take time, and we've really got to be careful," the general said.
General Pittard, who was an operational commander in Diyala two years ago, says he was saddened during a visit the provincial capital Baquba, early Monday, when he saw many of the development projects he worked on lying in shambles.
He says that happened, and the province became an insurgent stronghold again, because coalition commanders moved too quickly to withdraw their own forces at the beginning of last year and handed security responsibility to the new, and unprepared, Iraqi forces. The result, he said, is nearly 10,000 U.S. forces are back in the province, working with the Iraqi Army to regain control.
"The lesson learned is, do not move our force structure down too quickly," he said. "Do not draw down too quickly when we think there is a glimmer of success. It will take time. It will take time for the Iraqi security forces to be able to take over from our forces."
Still, General Pittard says the Iraqi forces will eventually be able to take control, if they are given the time to develop the skills, leadership and logistical infrastructure they need. He says that could take "a couple of years" in some areas like Diyala. But he says in many parts of the country Iraqi forces should be able to take responsibility by next spring, as a more senior American general indicated last week.
"Oh, it is realistic in many areas in Iraq," the general said. "But in Diyala Province, the way it is right now it will take some time. It will take a coalition force presence there, partnered with the fifth Iraqi Army division and the Iraqi police to provide lasting stability so that the provincial government can then take control."
General Pittard noted, in particular, progress in the Iraqi National Police, which was heavily infiltrated by militia elements. He says a new national commander replaced several key officers, and entire units were taken out of their stations for a month-long retraining program.
The general says the Iraqi Army is also improving, and has shown a willingness to fight that was not always present in the past. The army has had more training than the police force, but General Pittard says even the army needs "years" to build its capabilities and leadership.
Even next spring is longer than many Americans and members of congress want to wait before starting to withdraw some of the 155,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. The congress is demanding a progress report on the new Iraq security plan by September, and many members want a U.S. troop withdrawal to begin shortly afterward. General Pittard appealed for patience.